What strikes me the most about the ongoing controversy involving the National Press Club and the Neo-Angono Artists Collective is the way accusations, being bandied about and hurled at all directions, are based purely on assumptions. The sad part is that a number of the assumptions are based on shaky grounds and yet are being passed off as Gospel truth.

Just in case you have been on vacation as well from the never-ending controversies that have become regular fare in our country, here’s a quick backgrounder on the case. On the occasion of its anniversary, the NPC commissioned the Neo-Angono to do a mural on press freedom. The mural was delivered. It was unveiled to the public in ceremonies attended by no less than the President of the Republic.

A few days after, the excrement hit the ventilation. It turns out that the mural was altered in several parts without the consent of the artists’ group. The NPC admitted that yes, they hired an unidentified artist to do “temporary” alterations on the parts of the mural that were deemed “leftist” and “political.”

What remains unclear is who in the press club passed judgment and what yardstick did that person or persons use to declare those parts of the mural “leftist” or “political.”

As can be expected, Neo-Angono raised a howl and accused NPC of censorship and disrespect for artists.

In a statement that is now going around and around in the blogosphere, the artists’ group asks rather embarrassing questions: “Isn’t it ironic that an institution such as the NPC would cause the censorship of a work that they themselves commissioned purportedly to promote press freedom? Isn’t the freedom of expression of the artist bound up with the very press freedom that they supposedly uphold? Aren’t these alterations a clear violation of the rights of authors/artists protected by the Intellectual Property Code of the Philippines?”

I empathize with the artists. I am aware of the difficulties that artists contend with, particularly those who are just starting out. They don’t often get the respect they deserve. And very often, artists are treated with disrespect and their work dismissed and ignored not for aesthetic reasons, not because of the presence of absence of talent, but simply because there is a star system that operates in our society, particularly in the arts. It is the equivalent of a caste system. Thus, some artists can wield power and influence purely on the strength of his or her name.

It is one thing to suffer disrespect. It is another thing to suffer it from the hands of your comrades, from the very people who are supposed to share your advocacy. But then again, this penchant for making assumptions is probably what is at the root of the controversy.

One would expect that the “deal” between the NPC and Neo-Angono is covered by a comprehensive contract, or perhaps terms of references, that spells out all the details of the arrangement.

After all, club money (the cost of the mural was P900,000) is involved and there is a membership that has to be answered to. Of course I am aware that the amount involved may be insignificant to serious art collectors. One writer from another paper haughtily scoffed at the amount—“only nine hundred thousand, not even a million pesos”—as if monetary value is the only determinant of an artwork’s worth.

The point is that both NPC and the artists’ group made assumptions and relied on these. At the crux of the matter are the assumptions about the basic nature of a “commissioned art piece.”

The NPC assumed that since they were paying for the artwork, they could do as they please.

The President of the club even went as far as to proclaim that since they owned the painting, they could do anything with it—even burn it. I understand that he eventually apologized for the inflammatory (pun intended) outburst which seemed to indicate the level of respect he and his association has for the artwork and the artists.

The artists’ group on the other hand assumed that the NPC understood, or at the very least shared some level of understanding for the philosophical and even ideological issues around artworks. Obviously, paintings are not just pieces of furniture that one buys. A painting is a representation of the artists’ worldview, even of his politics and ideologies. They represent artistic expression.

The artists said it well when they insisted that they were not just suppliers.

More assumptions abound. Is the tattoo of an alibata K on the Andres Bonifacio character in the mural indicative of a leftist orientation? Does the statement of the International Federation of Journalists which occupies a big portion of the newspaper held by the central figure in the mural indicate partisanship? Does the headline of the newspaper (“Press Freedom Fighter’s Son Abducted”) the José Rizal character in the mural is holding indicative of political orientation?

It all boils down to the questions: Can anyone other than the artist render absolute judgment on the meaning of an artwork?

Moreover, does ownership of a work of art really translate into absolute agreement to its message? If this is what the NPC believes and if the intent in commissioning the mural was to make it into some kind of an open manifesto, they were probably better off taking out full-page ads in the papers.

Perhaps one of the most intriguing assumptions being bandied about has to do with the motivations behind the alterations.

The story being spread around, and which has been given inordinate play up by certain media organizations, is that the changes were made to please the President who was the guest of honor during the unveiling. An attempt was made to draw into the controversy the Presidential Security Group by alluding to them as the ones who “ordered” the changes. The NPC denies these of course. I assume that the club members would prefer being seen as people lacking in artistic sophistication rather than as lackeys of Malacañan Palace who kowtow to the whims and caprices of the powers-that-be.


Hernan said…
You raised a question : can anyone other than the artist render judgement on the art work?
Pray tell me: When I bought a piece of painting which I thought was a good one and later when I tried to hang it on a wall of the living room, I realized that it was not suitable enough to my liking or that of my family? So I decided not to display the painting and kept the same in our garage. Does that make me guilty of aything against the artist?
Bong C. Austero said…
check out the whole context of the statement. in fact, check the whole sentence. it read: "can anyone other than the artist render absolute judgment ON THE MEANING of an artwork?"


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